“On This Rock I Will Build My Church” (Matthew 16:13-20)

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2020

“On This Rock I Will Build My Church” (Matthew 16:13-20)

Everyone is interested in building the church, growing the church. Uh, let me rephrase that. Everyone who is already in the church, who is active and involved in the church, is interested in building and growing the church. People on the outside, as well as those with only a loose connection to the church–they don’t give a rip. They couldn’t care less. But those of us at least who are here regularly in church, we care about the church being built up and growing. Nobody wants to see the church fail or decline or decrease in numbers.

However, that’s what’s been happening. The church, at least in America, is in decline. The numbers have been decreasing. And for a long time. Actually, going back to about 1965, that’s when the numbers started to decline. That’s the year after the Baby Boom ended, when Americans stopped having kids at the same rate as they did from 1946 through 1964. But especially in the last ten years or so, the drop has been dramatic. There has been a plunge, a plummeting downward, in church membership and church attendance. And I’m not talking about just this congregation or just in small towns. No, it’s been pretty much across the board, all across America. Church numbers are down. And now this Covid thing is not helping, either. It has only aggravated the situation, the decline in attendance.

And the culture has changed, too. America has become increasingly secularized. Religion is no longer respected. There is even widespread antipathy toward Christianity, outright hostility. The culture has changed, and we are definitely swimming against the tide.

Now in view of the situation, how do we in the church react? Well, some people go into panic mode. “We’ll have to shut the doors!” Some people try to come up with ideas of what we can do to reverse the decline. After all, there are some churches, aren’t there, that seem to be doing alright. Maybe we need to be like them. Put screens up on the walls. Ditch the hymnals. Start up a praise band. That’ll draw in the young people! Oh, and we’ve got to add more programs, Mom’s Day Out, that sort of thing. What can we do to build the church?

And with the change in style, there inevitably comes a change in substance. What gets emphasized or de-emphasized is what I mean. In the content of the sermons: Is the message about Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, or is it a how-to talk about how to have a better self-image? In the content of the worship service: Is the music more about the praise band’s performance or the people’s participation? And is there any substance to what is being sung? Is the emphasis on what God does in Word and Sacrament or on what we do? Thus there can be a change in what people think church is about. The priorities get shifted. And the gospel gets lost in the shuffle. Is this any way to build the church? Oh, you might get a few more people in the door–although even that is questionable now–but are you really building a strong Christian faith in people’s hearts? Or are they just coming to get entertained and to go to your weekly yoga class?

What gets lost in the shuffle here is Jesus. It’s almost as though you could build a church without him. I mean, the Jesus we find in the pages of the New Testament. That one, not Jesus the Life Coach. Not Jesus the smiling inoffensive buddy who’s cheering you on in all your various pursuits.

What does Jesus say about our attempts to build the church without him? Without him at the center? He tells us in our text today, the reading from Matthew 16. There Jesus says, “I will build my church.” Whoa! Jesus seems to claim a little ownership in this process. He calls it “my church.” This is Jesus’ church–it’s his, it belongs to him. It’s Jesus’ church, it doesn’t belong to us, to do with it as we will. Jesus gets to decide what kind of church his church is going to be. So maybe we ought to try to find out what Jesus would have his church emphasize and teach and do and be like. Maybe our ideas about how to build the church need to be shaped and revised and refined by his. This is his church, after all.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus says that he will build it, and he will do it his way–the “on this rock” way. And when the church is built by Jesus, in his way, with the strength that he gives it, then the gates of hell shall not be able to prevail against his church. Oh, the church may not always look all that impressive and successful and victorious, but then neither did our Lord when he was hanging on the cross. But when Jesus builds his church, in his way, it is strong, even when it is weak.

“On this rock I will build my church.” So, what is this “rock” that Jesus will build his church on? Well, let’s back up a bit. In our text, Jesus has taken his disciples aside, after they had been with him a while and seen him in ministry. And they had seen how people react to him. So Jesus asks them for a field report: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they reply with an assortment of answers, all of which pay some lip-service to Jesus, but all of which stop short of saying enough. And so it is in our day. People may acknowledge Jesus as some sort of “influencer,” as an advocate for “spirituality”–he was a good example, he was a great teacher–but they still will stop short of saying enough. And frankly, many would say, just leave me alone, because I don’t want to be bothered with this religion business.

So Jesus gets some answers about what people think about him. But then he asks the disciples a follow-up question: “But you–who do you say that I am?” And Peter, usually the first to speak up, gives the gold-star answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yes, Peter, that’s right! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. He is the great Deliverer and King promised by God centuries earlier. Indeed, he is the Son of the living God. Jesus is the one-of-a-kind Son of God, come down from heaven. Peter confesses rightly who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yes, Peter, you got it! And you got it from God himself, by divine revelation. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

So this then is the “rock” on which Jesus will build his church. Not Peter himself, per se. No. But the rock is what Peter just said about who Jesus is. “This rock” is the apostolic confession of Christ. It is the New Testament message of Jesus, who he is and what he has done. It is the person and work of Christ, as proclaimed and taught by the apostles. This is the rock on which Christ builds his church. And there is no other.

Now even Peter, at this point, did not fully grasp or comprehend what being the Christ, being the divine Deliverer, would involve for Jesus. He was still thinking “Glory King” at this point. “Crucified Savior” was not on his radar screen. Peter didn’t get that part yet. For in the verses right after our text, Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed. At which Peter again pipes up, but this time he does not get the gold star. Peter rebukes his master: “No way, Jesus! This is not what we had in mind for you!” So Jesus has to rebuke him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Man’s way of fashioning the sort of Jesus we want, man’s way of building the sort of church we want–our ways are not God’s ways. God’s way will involve suffering and lowliness and a dying Savior.

For that is what it takes for Jesus to do the job he came to do. He must go to the cross. There was no other way for God to save this world of sinners–for God to save you–other than for the Son of the living God to be the dying Savior. Jesus is the Christ precisely in his being crucified. He died for you, my friends. He died in your place to take the judgment you deserve for your sins. For those sins were killing you. Literally. Eternally. And God’s love is such that he would not have the sinner die. Instead, Christ died for you. He washed away your sins by his holy precious blood. He conquered hell by his death on the cross, stripping the devil of his claim against you. Jesus destroyed death by his death, and the proof of it was shown on Easter morning when Christ rose from the dead. You, baptized believer in Christ–you share in his resurrection and his life.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is the rock on which Christ will build his church. This message, this gospel, this good news. This forgiveness of sins, won by Christ on the cross. This is the key that looses the chains of your sins, which were wrapped around your shoulders. This is the key that opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers. This is the key for you. This gospel: Christ Jesus delivering you from death and hell and bringing you into his kingdom of light and life. This is what the church is all about.

“On this rock I will build my church.” This is Jesus’ church, not ours. He will build it, and build it his way. It won’t be our programs or our personality. It won’t be our people-pleasing appeals to the flesh. No, Jesus will build his church his way: On this rock, the rock that is the apostolic confession of Christ. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Christ who died on the cross for you. The Christ who rose from the dead to lead you to eternal life. This rock is pure gospel. It is Christ-centered and cross-focused. “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Published in: on August 22, 2020 at 9:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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